Will BlackBerry 10 be enough to save RIM?

Canadian Blackberry manufacturer RIM had a torrid 2011, in which it generated a lot of negative publicity by underperforming financially, experiencing a high profile outage, facing calls from shareholders to sell up and seeing its co-CEOs and founders step down. Its message to stakeholders during this difficult time has been a call for patience, with claims that the next software platform to be released will be a real game-changer. So the unveiling of the BlackBerry 10 platform this week was met with great expectation.

The firm unveiled an alpha version of the platform on Thursday and Telecoms.com went to see first-hand whether it really is good enough to reverse the firm’s fortunes.

The BlackBerry 10 platform has been built from the ground up and represents a major overhaul of the OS, with a completely new user interface. It has been designed to appeal to a wide range of app developers, as the developer toolkit includes the BlackBerry 10 Native SDK with Cascades, an application development toolset that allows for the construction of visually rich applications without having to write code in C/C++ or Qt. The toolkit also includes support for HTML5 application developers and Adobe AIR.

It was a brave move by RIM, given the pace of change in the handset space, to go back to the drawing board while its rivals have unveiled new devices making relatively incremental changes upon their previous models. Earlier this week research revealed that RIM has been one of the hardest hit vendors in the smartphone market as Android continues its march.

But perhaps the most interesting observation about this long-anticipated platform is that RIM is insistent that BB10 should not be thought of as a “smartphone platform”, but a platform for “mobile computers”.

This means that it’s not just for handsets or tablets; RIM has set its sights much further. The QNX platform acquired by RIM is already being used in a host of scenarios: medical devices, cars, military vehicles, nuclear power stations, trains, air traffic and even within NASA, according to Vivek Bhardwaj, head of software portfolio EMEA for RIM. And the BB10 platform is intended to be used in much the same way.

Bhardwaj explained that the fact that there are multiple toolkits appeals to developers and allows them to express themselves better and for a broad range of use cases. He said that, for example, games developers have taken to using Cascades for the apps they develop, while many music and video app makers have taken to Adobe AIR.

“We’ve been taking this tour, visiting cities worldwide and we’re seeing that a lot of app developers are interested. Our focus is on really getting it right for the developers; building the tools and providing the capabilities to allow them express themselves, and the technologies we are supporting are not proprietary, so developers are finding it useful that they can use open standards.”

He added that with the early development of apps, developers began by using the platform’s Android runtime environment to simply copy apps over from Android to BlackBerry 10. Now, he is seeing that shortly after such a copycat app appears, a native BlackBerry app is developed with more features.

In addition, RIM’s investment in acquiring WebKit-based mobile browser provider Torch Mobile was aimed at improving the touch experience on its devices. When we tried using the device, the touchscreen was much better than previous BlackBerry models – but it was still not quite as slick as the iPhone.

Bhardwaj admitted that the next breed of BlackBerrys will not be for everyone, which is very different to what the likes of Apple is aiming for. RIM executives have spoken recently about going back to the firm’s roots, and focusing on the enterprise segment, but while Bhardwaj was reluctant to admit that the next devices will be aimed at business users, he said that it was instead aimed at “people who want to be successful in whatever they do”.

Malik Saadi, principal analyst at Informa Telecoms and Media, said that he has no concerns on the software side, and has been impressed by the BB10 platform, but he is sceptical over whether it is in RIM’s interests to continue producing hardware.

“Given that 95 per cent of the firm’s cost of sales were spent on hardware, it isn’t paying off. I think RIM should licence the platform to other hardware manufacturers, such as LG or HTC,” he said.

Bhardwaj maintained that the handset is necessary as it acts as a touchpoint to bring a BlackBerry 10 ecosystem together with other connected devices, but admitted that RIM is exploring its options in this regard, and strategy meetings are being held among management about how to licence the platform.

However, whether the BlackBerry 10 platform is enough to make RIM once again a serious force in the device market is largely dependent on two factors, according Saadi.

“I’m not worried about the software, but I do have two worries: the time to market and investor patience,” he said.

“Will investors give RIM enough time to launch the platform when it’s ready – or will they force it to launch it prematurely? If it does that, it will completely kill the platform off before it’s even had a chance to begin.”


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